Conceptions of Beauty and
Aesthetics among Tuareg

“There is more to beauty than meets the eye”1 was the motto of this post-doc research project on conceptions of beauty and aesthetics of transnational Tuareg from Niger, who are living due to ruptured life conditions in Algeria, and Libya.

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Universal ideals of beauty include symmetry, regularity, youthfulness, and special proportions. While societies all around the world share these ideals, their concepts of hairstyles, body paintings, scarifications, body sizes and body shapes, or the significance of complexion, diverge strongly.

All societies have their own imaginations and conceptions about what is beautiful or ugly, aesthetic or unattractive. Ideals of beauty change in the course of time, they are determined through conceptions of norms and values, and they are always negotiated through social, cultural, political, and economic factors, and they reflect social ideals.

Ideals of beauty are not only superficial representations of formality and outwardness. Moreover they are an integral part of social life since they reflect relations of sex and gender, positions of power, represent norms and values and ideals of beauty are a central instrument of social and cultural differentiation in order to define group affiliation and expressing “self” and “other”. Beauty, thus, correlates with questions of power and benefits. Beauty is a marker of social boundaries. 2

“We Tuareg are tired. In the Sahara we have lost everything, and in the cities we have gained nothing. We are poor. For years our heads were blocked, we didn’t send our children to school, and now we vegetate. We don’t live, but we also can’t die. The best thing would be to get up every day at six in the morning, to look for work and to go to sleep. But what are we doing instead? Today we go to Algeria and tomorrow to Libya, we are drinking Cappuccino and Macchiato, we are buying ourselves an expensive bazin and an aleshu in order to impress the girls, and the bottom line is that we have achieved nothing.”(Akidima Effad, Ghat 2007)

The findings of the research resulted in a book:

Beautiful Modern Nomads
Bordercrossing-Tuareg between Niger, Algeria and Libya

Ines Kohl
Reimer, Berlin 2009
144 pages with 102 photographs and three graphs
19 × 25,3 cm
€ 35,00 (D) / sFr 59,80
ISBN 978–3-496–02821–5

How do “modern Nomads” cross the Sahara? What kinds of challenges and difficulties are they confronted with, which opportunities do they find in Libya, and how does their life in the newly created Saharan borderland look like? These and other questions are rised in this book and are answered – surprisingly – on the basis of beauty and aesthetics. Ideals of beauty, body characteristics, dress codes and sexual taboos, correlate with morals, norms and values and can be interpreted as an indicator of social change in the Sahara.

The border-crossing Tuareg have thus formed a veritable “youth culture”. New ideals of beauty, refashioned aesthetics of music, changing traditions and newly acquired values of money and material things show this nomadic society form a striking new angle.

 

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Contents

Acknowledgments
Tuareg, Imasheŕen, Ishumar

About Ishumar, or Research Between Borders
Fieldworks´ daily life
Awidu tiset! – Give me the Mirror!

Ishumar, Borderliners of the Sahara
The Borderliner Triangle
Zones of Transition
Life in Transit

Libya, the “Ishumars’ Europe“
Afrod to Libya
For the “Tuaregs’ Sons“
Life Strategies in Libya
Tihussay – Beauty, or About the Body’s Value
Fat is Beautiful
“Beauty Benefits the Soul”
The Role of Blood in the Conception of Beauty

Wedding Feasts and Guitar Sounds: The Asthetics of Modern Nomads
The Beautiful Women from “Outside”
Mariama and Hamu: An Ishumar Wedding
Guitar: Bridge between Tradition und Modernity

Traditional Beauty and Beautiful Tradition
Visualizing Beauty
Competition in Beauty and Music

The Attractiveness of Money and the Desirable Beauty of Tangibles
Bibliography
Glossary
About the Author

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Extract of the book

Awidu tiset! Give me the mirror (page 22–25)

During my entire fieldwork period in Libya there was no sentence which I heard as often as awidu tiset! – Give me the mirror! Apart from greetings, segu and tiset, comb and mirror, were among the first words I learned in Tamasheq. Both objects are constantly sought after by men, women and children alike, but are mostly not present, because they permanently circulate between the people living in the house and Ishumar3 who are staying for a short or long time. In the end, nobody knows where he put them last.

In ishumar households a mirror, tiseit, is always highly demanded. It is constantly sought after, but is mostly not present, because it permanently circulates between the people living in the house and Ishumar who are staying for a short or long time. (Photo: Ines Kohl 2006)

In ishumar households a mirror, tiseit, is always highly demanded. It is constantly sought after, but is mostly not present, because it permanently circulates between the people living in the house and Ishumar who are staying for a short or long time. (Photo: Ines Kohl 2006)

Beauty and a perfectly pretty and handsome appearance play a major role among Tuareg. That is why even in the Sahara all nomads are equipped with at least one small mirror to check one´s make-up and the form of the headscarf (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 22).

Beauty and a perfectly pretty and handsome appearance play a major role among Tuareg. That is why even in the Sahara all nomads are equipped with at least one small mirror to check one´s make-up and the form of the headscarf (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 22).

This was the beginning of my interest in questions regarding beauty and aesthetics. My first impression already suggested that beautiful looks and a correct appearance were highly valued among Imasheŕen4. While the home is neglected regarding beauty and aesthetics, as it is merely perceived in its function and thus stands in stark contrast to the western concept of “home improvement”, the body is decorated and adorned with attributes which emphasize and accentuate personal attractiveness.

The ishumar pay great attention to physical beauty and visual appearance. People of outstanding beauty (imishgalen, timishgalen) are extraordinarily popular and clearly privileged compared to others (Photo: Ines Kohl, cover page).

The ishumar pay great attention to physical beauty and visual appearance. People of outstanding beauty (imishgalen, timishgalen) are extraordinarily popular and clearly privileged compared to others (Photo: Ines Kohl, cover page).

Beauty is emphasized through visual appearance. Clean clothes are considered to be one of the highest principles, which is why day after day people do laundry, iron, and buy new clothes. This is a phenomenon of Ishumar society: Instead of investing the money in food or more promising tangible things (car, house), it is spent on clothes. A Bazin, brand Galila (colloquial Galina), is one of the most expensive fabrics. In order to purchase a piece of clothing of this quality, an Ashamur heads into a hopeless cycle of borrowing money, and in most cases will hardly be able to pay it back. While the Arabs living in Libya imagine a house and a car as desirable and worthwhile goals in their lives, for Imasheŕen clothing embodies the ne plus ultra. Clothing is not only desirable, but alongside language is the characteristic feature and attribute which defines the identity of the Imasheŕen.

Bazin in different colours are one of the most expensive fabrics in West-Africa. The highest quality however is fabricated in Holland (Vlisco) or Austria (Getzner). (Photo: Ines Kohl 2006)

Bazin in different colours are one of the most expensive fabrics in West-Africa. The highest quality however is fabricated in Holland (Vlisco) or Austria (Getzner). (Photo: Ines Kohl 2006)

This first evidence directed me to the topic of beauty. Over the course of my research it became more and more obvious that beauty affects far more than just appearance: “There is more to beauty than meets the eye”5. All societies have their own concepts of what is regarded and rated as beautiful or ugly, appealing or repugnant, aesthetically precious or unattractive. However, the sense for beauty not only lies in the eyes of the beholder, but is subject to certain universal ideals which are connected to values. These universal ideals of beauty include symmetry, regularity, youthfulness, and special proportions and can be identified as universally valid criteria for attractiveness6. While societies all around the world share these ideals, their concepts of hairstyles, body paintings, scarifications, body sizes and body shapes, or the significance of complexion, diverge strongly. The valuations and valuesattached to them vary as well, although providing beautiful persons with attributes and characteristics which have a positive connotation seems to be universal, whereas body features regarded as ugly imply moral depreciation7.

Ideals of beauty change over time. They are subject to the established standards and values of a society, are modified by external social and economic factors, and ultimately reflect social ideals. Thus, concepts of beauty and aesthetics are not just superficial representations of appearance. Rather, beauty and aesthetics are indicators of social and economic changes and make collective normative values visible. They are an integral part of social relationships and consequently reflect gender relations, illustrate positions of power, and shed light on social norms and values. They can thus become a central tool for social and cultural discrimination, by expressing affiliation to a certain group. For this reason beauty is not purely a question of a critical judgement, attractive or not, but is subject to social and cultural positioning. Beauty correlates with questions of affiliation and discrimination, of external view and self-definition, and as a result is linked to questions of power and advantage. Beauty is therefore a social boundary maker, a social marker of a society.

In red, yellow, pink, or orange, combined with sunglasses, jeans, and leather jacket, casually worn around the shoulder, or boldly combined with hairstyles, the chech, or tagelmust, the traditional men´s veil, has become a fashion accessory of the new ishumar generation. (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 115)

In red, yellow, pink, or orange, combined with sunglasses, jeans, and leather jacket, casually worn around the shoulder, or boldly combined with hairstyles, the chech, or tagelmust, the traditional men´s veil, has become a fashion accessory of the new ishumar generation. (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 115)

The young Ishumar and Tishumar generation mixes traditional aspects with modern Western or Chinese elements. The cell phone plays less a role as a means of communication, but is rather a symbol of modernity. (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 129)

The young Ishumar and Tishumar generation mixes traditional aspects with modern Western or Chinese elements. The cell phone plays less a role as a means of communication, but is rather a symbol of modernity. (Photo: Ines Kohl, page 129)

In the following, I will discuss beauty and aesthetics as an indicator of social change. The protagonists of this book are borderliners who move between Niger, Algeria, and Libya, and through their movements across borders not only cross territorial, but also social and societal boundaries and barriers. Political developments, processes of economic change and sociocultural transformations have resulted in the formation of the Ishumar, a group of “new modern nomads.” It is characteristic of the Ishumar that their way of life is one beyond traditional systems. They break away from traditional norms and values, select special elements, change them, and place them into a new context. Their ideas, concepts and ideals of beauty and aesthetics, values and morals, can be regarded as an indicator of sociocultural changes in the Sahara.

Endnotes

  1. Popenoe, Rebecca 2004: Feeding Desire. Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. London/New York: Routledge
  2. See f.e. Classen, Constance 1998: The Color of Angels. Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination. London/New York. Douglas, Mary 1966: Purity and Danger. Etcoff, Nancy 1999: Survival of the Prettiest. The Science of Beauty, London. Synnott, Anthony 1993: The Body Social. Symbolism, Self and Society. London. Van Damme, Wilfried 1996: Beauty in Context. Towards an Anthropological Approach to Aesthetics. Leiden.
  3. The term Ishumar (sing. masc.: Ashamur, sing. fem.: Tashamurt; plural fem.: Tishumar) derives from the French chômeur, unemployed person, and describes those Imasheŕen who gave up their nomadic life and went to the surrounding neighbouring states, above all to Algeria and Libya, to look for a job. Today, Ishumar refers to a generation of borderliners whose living conditions have created special strategies.
  4. The emic name of the Tuareg varies, depending on dialect variations: Imuhaŕ (Algeria, Libya), Imajeŕen or Imasheŕen (Niger), or Imushaŕ (Mali). Regarding the transcription chosen, it should be noted that “ŕ” is pronounced as “gurgled” r.
  5. Popenoe, Rebecca 2004:1.
  6. Etcoff, Nancy 1999.
  7. Beer, Bettina 2002: Körperkonzepte, interethnische Beziehungen und Rassismustheorien. Eine kulturvergleichenden Untersuchung. Berlin.

Rezensionen

aus: Wiener Zeitschrift des Morgenlandes 99/2009
Autorin: Veronika Ritt-Benmimoun (Wien)
Nicht nur die “Schönheit” der Nomaden, wie im Buchtitel bezeichnet, sondern ihr gesamter neuer modernerer Lebensstil wird von Kohl sehr detailliert beschrieben. Das Buch ist gespickt mit persönlichen Lebens- und Erfahrungsberichten, wodurch die Autorin die Betroffenen selbst sprechen lässt. Durch das Buch ziehen sich Vergleiche zwischen Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, zwischen den traditionellen Imajeghen, die noch in der Wüste leben, und den Ishumar, die die Lebensweise ihrer Vorfahren aufgegeben haben, zwischen Libyern und Ishumar, und nicht zuletzt zwischen der europäischen Denkweise und der der Ishumar. Aber während anderswo immer der Verlust der Traditionen beklagt wird, wird hier gezeigt, wie alte Traditionen umgeformt, an neue Lebensumstände angepasst werden, somit eine neue Bedeutung erhalten und in manchen Fällen damit der Grundstein für eine “neue” Tradition gelegt wird. Ganz deutlich zeigt diese Studie, dass Gesellschaften, die in Veränderung begriffen sind oder sich bereits verändert haben, ein ebenso interessantes Forschungsfeld darstellen wie traditionelle Gesellschaften, deren unterschiedliche Bräuche sich im Laufe der Zeit ja ebenso angepasst und verändert haben.

aus: Anthropos 106.2011/1
Autorin: Susan J. Rasmussen (USA)
The book offers rich insights into Tuareg and other cultural identities as procesual, practiced, and in flux. The book also reveals much about Africa in general. The Sahara, notwithstanding its sporadic droughts, locust-invasions, famines, and wars, is not an isolated or desolate emptiness or barrier. rather, it is a crossroads and meeting place – somewhat like an ocean with ports of call.
(…)
This book is an important contribution to contemporary Tuareg ethnography. The data convincingly support the author´s identification of the ishumar as a salient social group with a sense of self-identity and a culture.
(…)
In conclusion, this book is highly insightful and would be most rewarding by scholars in African, Saharan, and Middle Eastern Studies, social/cultural anthropology, cultural studies, and globalization studies.


 

 

 

Post-Doc research project

Funding:
OMV, Austrian Oil Cooperation, Business Unit Libya
Commission for Social Anthropology /
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Project-Realisation:
Dr. Ines Kohl
Duration:
10/2005–01/2008

Conducted at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Centre for Studies in Asian Cultures and Social Anthropology (CSACSA), Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS)

 

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